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Has deficit reduction really grown massively as a "top priority" for Americans during the last four years?

A Pew poll released today has raised some hackles among progressives because at first glance it appears to show that public support for deficit reduction has grown rapidly since Obama was elected.

Seen in isolation, the key statistic does indeed sound disturbing. Four years ago only 53% of Americans viewed deficit reduction as a "top priority." Today, on the other hand, 72% agree with this view, a very substantial increase of 19%. The Pew Center's headline for the survey "Deficit Reduction Rises on Public's Agenda for Obama's Second Term" seems if anything to reinforce the impression that a significant conservative trend has indeed been detected.

But, in fact, what the survey actually provides is a near-perfect illustration of how important it is to look at polling data carefully and not to simply rely on headlines.

The statistics above come from a survey that Pew has periodically conducted over many years to track changes in the public's policy priorities. The way the survey is conducted is that the subjects are read a long list of some 21 different items. The exact question they are asked to answer is the following:

I'd like to ask you about priorities for President Obama and Congress this year. As I read from a list, tell me if you think each should be a top priority, important but lower priority, not too important or should it not be done.

Now notice, the respondents can name as many items as they want as "top priorities." They are not forced to choose one against the other. As a result, the fact that 72% say deficit reduction should be a "top priority" does not mean they have chosen it in opposition to other policy goals.

Read with care, the results actually tell a very different story than the conservative pro-deficit reduction "surge" that a quick reading of the headline would suggest.First, both "strengthening the economy" and "improving the job situation" are actually chosen as "top priorities" more frequently than deficit reduction. While 72% of the respondents felt reducing the budget deficit should be a top priority, 86% thought "strengthening the economy" should be a top priority and 79% felt the same about "improving the job situation."

In short, what was really going on was that most respondents were simply indicating that they thought all three of these items -- and many others as well -- should all be considered "top priorities." They were not choosing deficit reduction instead of polices to create jobs, strengthen the economy or to achieve other social goals.

An even more significant fact that emerges from the data is that the rapid growth of deficit reduction as a "top priority" is actually a good deal less than it first appears. While the percentage of respondents as a whole who considered deficit reduction a top priority did indeed grow from 53% to 72% in the four years since Obama was elected, this increase was concentrated among Republicans. Among them, the number rating deficit reduction as a top priority rose from 51% to 84% -- a whopping one-third increase. Among Democrats, on the other hand, it only rose from 64% to 67%, an increase so small that it was actually within the margin of error. Among independents, the percentage identifying deficit reduction as a top priority rose from 57% to 71%, an increase that was significant but one whose importance is also limited because many independents today are actually disgruntled Republicans. The number of "true" independents whose views actually changed would be notably smaller.

In short, what the Pew survey actually reveals is that more Americans considered that strengthening the economy and improving the job situation should be top priorities than considered that deficit reduction should be a top priority. Moreover, the growth in the percentage of people who chose deficit reduction as a top priority was largely concentrated among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents.

When one considers the fact that Republicans were blissfully and gleefully indifferent to deficits as long as George W Bush was president and only began howling about the subject the minute Obama was elected, the fact that their deep and oh-so-utterly genuine and sincere concern about fiscal prudence increased in the last four years is mainly proof that the RNC fax machine and the Fox News TV transmitters were in good working order during the period and not that any profound change had actually occurred in American political attitudes.

The moral of the story? The same one the consumer guy on TV and your lawyer always told you. Don't be lazy, read the fine print.